We have often shared blogs about hearing loss, and how to manage when hearing starts to fade. We have also warned of the dangers of loud noises, and the ease with which everyday sounds can contribute to hearing loss; but short of recommending ear plugs, or turning down your ipod, what can we do to ensure that we don’t lose our hearing in the first place? How can we work on keeping our hearing intact, or begin to restore it once it has been damaged? This, unfortunately, is a much more difficult question to answer, however with the help of some recent information, and a little bit of music (not too loud) there may be a way to rehabilitate your neural pathways after all.
It has been determined that seniors, as a result of aging, often begin to experience a reduction in processing speed affecting sensory, cognitive, and motor systems. As these systems are affected, it becomes more difficult for the individual to understand speech in certain listening environments. Dr. Kraus is a professor of auditory neuroscience at Northwestern University, investigating the neurobiology underlying speech and music perception and learning-associated brain plasticity and Dr. Anderson is assistant professor in the hearing and speech sciences department of the University of Maryland, where she is studying the effects of hearing loss and aging on neural processing in older adults. These two have teamed up to bring us some interesting data regarding auditory training and musicianship.
Auditory training is a kind of rehabilitation that can help people who have been fitted for hearing aids, and still suffer from difficulty understanding speech. It has been discovered that the parts of our brain that understand speech overlap with the parts that process music. Scientists have shown that neural pathways and synapses in the brain change as a result of behavior, sensory input, damage, dysfunction and training. This neural reorganization is referred to as neuroplasticity. The goal here is to re-train our ears to a higher level of processing by listening to, and perhaps even playing music.
Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel, PhD, came up with the acronym OPERA to explain how the practice of an instrument could assist in recovering these pathways. In his book, Music, Language and The Brain, he explores how these five principles can help to link music and increased cognition:
• Overlap: There is an overlap in the anatomy and physiology of the auditory system for speech and music.
• Precision: More precision is required for music processing than for speech.
• Emotions: The strong emotions often elicited by music may induce plasticity through activation of the brain’s reward centers.
• Repetition: Extensive practice tunes the auditory system.
• Attention: Focused attention to details of sound is required when playing an instrument.
While these studies are still ongoing, and more research is necessary to determine the depth of the connection, musicianship has been linked very closely to an increase in the amount of brainstem reactions across the age spectrum. Perhaps in the near future, when we get our loved ones fitted for their hearing aids we will also be signing them up for weekly guitar or piano lessons.